learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Video: introduction to the 2012 Street Society live projects at QUB

2012 was the third year that we’ve run a vertical live project between the first and fifth year students of architecture at Queen’s University Belfast. It’s the last one I will be involved with in any capacity, and it’s really a delight to see the event growing under the careful supervision of my talented peers and faculty colleagues. PhD candidate Paul Bower replaces me as Street Society co-ordinator (and he did a cracking job).

This year, a documenting team of students made a series of amazing videos about the eleven different projects which were located throughout Northern Ireland. Posted above is Dr. Sarah Lappin’s introduction to the Street Society. Posted below are Prof. Ruth Morrow’s concluding thoughts.

A short documentary summarising all eleven projects is posted below. You can find eleven more videos, one for each project by visiting the Street Society Youtube channel or by clicking past the jump below.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Published: Site and other matters

A bit more than two years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Anne Pirrie of the University of the West of Scotland at the 2009 international conference of the AHRA at Edinburgh College of Art(aka Field/Work). Following that meeting and a discussion surrounding the paper she had just oresented – entitled Tripping, Slipping and Losing the Way – Anne invited me to work with her on developing the paper for publication.

Since then, the draft paper has been through several evolutions and variously considered for several publications. Somewhat unexpectedly, it was accepted without our immediate knowledge to Policy Futures in Education, and appears in this months edition, volume 9, issue 5 as Field/Work, Site, and Other Matters: exploring design practice across disciplines.

Anne has been a fantastic collaborator to work with, and although this is perhaps not the version of the paper we had envisioned being published, it’s a pleasant detour through rich fields surrounding the core interests of my PhD. Subscribers can download the article and the rest of the issue here. The paper will be available to non-subscribers in two years time.

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Published: Intercultural interaction in architectural education

It’s a pleasure to finally hold in my hands a copy of Intercultural Interactions: in Architectural Education (eds. Peter Beacock, Geoffrey Matstutis and Robert Mull) – to which Ruth Morrow and I contributed a chapter on the first Street Society live project at QUB. If you’re interested in reading it and thirteen other chapters on participatory practices in architectural education, you can buy the book now for just £10 from Amazon or from your preferred retailer (ISBN: 978-0956353214).

If you’re in London on 3 November, there’s a book launch alongside a lecture and exhibition on Capturing Urban Conflict by Wendy Pullan, author of Chapter 5 in the book. Details are on the ASD blog.

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CFP: Live Projects Pedagogy International Symposium 2012

I got an email from Oxford Brookes University this week announcing the imminent launch of this call for participation. Following from our own very productive Live Projects 2011 colloquium at Queen’s University Belfast, it’s good to see more interest in the field and more events such as this to bring live project students and teachers together to talk pedagogy.

For more information, including a schedule and details about registration, see the website.


Symposium: Live Projects Pedagogy International Symposium 2012

Critical reflections on Live Projects with a view to co-creating a pedagogic best practice framework

Thursday 24th – Saturday 26th May 2012
Oxford Brookes University, Headington Hill Campus.

A three-day international symposium by and for live project educators, live-project community participants, live project students, practice architects involved in community co-design, University management involved in community partnership projects, and live project practitioners and participants from associated fields and disciplines.

Themes include:

Problem-based learning, community-engaged scholarship, co-design, peer-based learning, tacit knowledge, threshold concepts, practice-ready skills, professionalism and ethics, diversity, critical citizenship, education futures, deep and surface learning, live project methodologies and paradigms, architecture curriculum, assessment and validation.

Overview: Why do we need critical live architecture project pedagogy?

Benefits to clients

The recent economic downturn and ongoing restructuring of both the professional training and design practice management, signifies a tipping point in the way we currently teach and practice architecture. As a profession, architects are by definition tasked with serving the interests of the public. Yet many architects would argue that delivering upon this requirement is not without difficulty given the constraints of a sector focused triptych that prioritises time, quality and cost over human factors.

Benefits to the profession

Architecture practices have often voiced concerns that schools of architecture do not provide students with the right set of skills needed in practice. Schools often defend their teaching by emphasising the role of Universities in developing creative and aesthetic capabilities that will produce good designers and ultimately good buildings and spaces. This kind of teaching is usually delivered within a studio environment that presents students with fictional rather than ‘real time’ challenges considered to be more likely to produce visionary and creative design output.

Benefits to students

The majority of UK architecture students have no contact with clients or with the consultation process until after they graduate. ‘Live studio’ projects not only address this but they also enable students to gain practice-ready professional experience such as job running, as well as develop a sense of civic social engagement and gain an education that is aimed at nurturing tomorrow’s citizens for lives of consequence.

Benefits to Universities

As well as Universities, public sector organisations and charities are facing financial pressure upon their ability to deliver to their clients effectively. Although this presents huge challenges in terms of resources, this is also an opportunity to establish partnerships that provide enduring benefits by mobilising students, faculty, and neighbourhood organizations to work together to solve urban problems that revitalize the economy, generate jobs, and rebuild communities. In the USA, these partnerships are far more prevalent than in the UK. Known as Community University Partnerships, these ‘resource units’ that are often located on and off campus, provide effective, community-engaged scholarship for students from a range of disciplines. Based upon the success rate of these kinds of learning environments, UK Universities clearly have some catching up to do.

The knowledge gap

The principle aim of this symposium is to critically examine the learning value of live projects to students of architecture and to consider how they are attained and what their value is, particularly in terms of the students professional development and to the shaping of the profession as a whole.

During the symposium, live project ‘best practice’ will be critically defined in the interests of educators, students and schools alike. Subsequently, delegates will co-author a Live Project Pedagogy Charter, aimed at enabling Live Projects to be validated, academically accredited and formally integrated into mainstream architecture curriculum.

Format of Presentations

Paper sessions will consist of four presenters within each 90-minute session. Each session will be chaired. The session time will be divided equally between the presenters. Workshop presentations will be given a full 90-minute session. Panel sessions will provide an opportunity for three or more presenters to speak in a more open and conversational setting with conference attendees.

Conference highlights:

Two-Week International Live Project Summer School 2012: Montana State University & Oxford Brookes

The symposium will include visits to and presentations by community and student participants to an Oxford-based Live Project Summer School – partnered with Oxford City Council – and involving students from graduate architecture programs at Montana State University & Oxford Brookes University.

Architecture tours of ‘secret’ Oxford

Social activities for visiting delegates include organised tours of historic Oxford, including visiting some of the key architectural gems and hidden delights.

Symposium Outputs

  • Generation of Live Project Pedagogy Charter
  • Double-blind, peer-reviewed Symposium specific Journal

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To Crit or to Big Crit

With apologies for the slight blogging backlog (backblog?) it’s only today I’ve been able to get round to reviewing my notes on the 2011 Big Crit at the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture. This was the second year that I’ve roused myself early enough to catch the deliciously timed 05:55 train from Glasgow to Aberdeen (scheduling it just five minutes later would make it much more bearable). That meant that by the time I was home late that night I was too wrecked to process, let alone share, any cogent thoughts on the day.

The Big Crit is, first of all, a fantastic idea and a fantastic experience. For the last three years, an evolving group of staff and students have volunteered their time and energy to organise a one day event that’s open to the public. Over the course of one day, a selection of students from every year group in the school present their design projects to invited critiques and a public audience of students and guests. Scheduled after (most) students have finished their submissions, it comes at a point when the school (internal examiners notwithstanding) can breathe a sigh of relief after the stressful final weeks of term. The school dusts itself down, projects itself against a wall and considers its progress.

The guest critics this year included Annalie Riches (Riches Hawley Mikhail Architects), Peter St John (Caruso St John Architects), William Mann (Witherford Watson Mann Architects) and Ellis Woodman (editor, Building Design). This tranche of London and south-east-England based critics was balanced by visiting professors Alan Dunlop (Alan Dunlop Architects) and Neil Gillespie (Reiach and Hall Architects) who provided an informed voice both from within the school’s own faculty and Scotland’s central belt. They were supported by lecturers Neil Lamb, Penny Lewis and David Vila-Domini. It was, as always, also a particular pleasure to catch up with the head of school, David McClean.

The role of ‘the crit‘ in architectural education is far from assured. At its best, it can be at the heart of an inclusive, discursive and critical architectural education. At its worse, it can be an inhumane, destructive and pointless waste of time. By scheduling the Big Crit away from assessment and after final submission (for most students), the Scott Sutherland School proposes an interesting twist on the old format. Over the course of one day, about three dozen students “pin up” (electronically) their projects from the preceding academic year, and present them to the visiting critics for reviewing and conversation. The conversation is opened to the floor for varying degrees of interaction.

Over the course of the day, I skipped between two of the three parallel sessions, witnessing a variety of projects and a variety of critique. As might be expected, the day starts with first year students and works its way up towards five year thesis projects in the late afternoon. All of the projects I saw were located in or close to the city of Aberdeen itself, starting on the very campus of the Robert Gordon University and working out through the city towards the mouth of the Dee and the city’s lively port.

As is the template in schools of architecture the world over, projects start small and get progressively bigger, peaking with somewhat uncomfortable thesis projects that survey vast areas before settling down to design a singular object or set of objects at an architectural scale. The fact that, unlike in France for instance, planning is a discipline taught separately from architecture is immediately apparent. However the gradual rise in design sophistication from first to five years is palpable, as is the confidence with which students describe the ideas behind their projects. Some of the undergraduate projects felt, to me, as thought an early “good idea” had been pounced up and not let go off until it had yielded a building. By the later years it was pleasing to see students making informed executive decisions about which themes and concepts to develop and which to abandon as they progressed their designs.

The inverse complexity of designing that most basic of architectural forms, the residence, was apparent throughout the days. As I offered in one comment from the floor, “housing is damned difficult,” and none of the residential projects I saw was entirely satisfactory. The decades of experience of the guests critics will, hopefully, have reassured students that it takes a long time to get housing – especially apartments and sheltered accommodation – just right.

In the afternoon I got to see a number of fourth and fifth year students present their schemes from their penultimate and final projects. Having now spent more than two years learning how to research, I can look back at my own M.Arch projects as well as those at the Big Crit and see a clear cultural deficiency in Part II architectural design research. Just as in my own thesis project a few years ago, there was only a vague understanding of the difference between subjective and objective data, and never quite enough time to really get inside the information that was being presented. That said, the standard of work I saw was, across all five years, consistently high. I was assured that the students were not just selected based on academic performance, but represented an accurate cross section of the school. Given the small size of the student body and the enviable location, the Scott Sutherland School is for me one of the most interesting architecture schools in the country.

There remained, at the end of the day, just one sad observation. While the projects presented were of a remarkable range, depth and quality; and while the critiques from the guests were informed, thoughtfully provocative and intelligent; the overall level of conversation between the floor and the panels was disappointing.

I was reminded, on the long journey home, of this remarkably handy sketch prepared by the Glasgow-based architect Simon Chadwick (click to enlarge):

Reviewing options. Drawing credit: Simon Chadwick.

Drawn in the oddly specific language of the architect’s sketch, this diagram explains neatly to visiting critics the aspirations of architectural educators who want to curate lively, inclusive and public discussions about students’ work. Since architectural education depends to a great extent on part time tutors and visiting critics, such guidelines can be extremely helpful in ensuring a school’s pedagogic aspirations aren’t lost when guests are invited to review work.

In the first option, as has been practiced in schools of architecture across the world, the critics sit at the front of the room to get the closest view of the student’s work pinned on the wall. A disaffected audience of non-presenting students lingers in the background, doubtless exhausted by their own deadlines and only half-engaged with conversation between student and reviewer.

In the second option, a simple relocation of the three critics to different points of the room encloses and engages the audience. While not guaranteeing the engagement of the audience, it does at least establish the landscape of a room in which students and educators can interact.

At the Big Crit (see my shitty five minute SketchUp illustration above), guest critics sat at either or one end of a table arranged lengthwise beneath the projected image of the students’ work. Models, books and pamphlets supporting the project were placed on this table. The audience sat in the body of the room, on rows of chairs facing the screen. When the critics engaged in conversation with the student, the audience continued to sit in silence. Turning to the audience of students with specific questions rarely initiated more than a simple response to the stated question.

While I love the post-evaluation timing and format of the Big Crit, it demonstrates that there is still some room to develop the way we present and discuss design projects in architectural education. While I share the sentiments of David McClean who, at the end of the day, expressed a desire to see Big Crits starting at other schools of architecture, I’d like them to push for an even greater inclusiveness of critic and student. As Simon Chadwick’s diagram suggests, a simple move might be to re-arrange the spaces in which guest critics are invited to review student work. Without disrespecting the valuable experience and opinions of the invited critics who give their time to come to schools of architecture to review the work of students, I would propose a quick 90º rotation of the critics’ table. Instead of reinforcing the front/back relationship between “stage” and audience, it could penetrate the body of the room like the perfect proportions of a dining table in a large kitchen. Or, more appropriately, like a university’s seminar or business’ conference room. Critics and students can then take their place around the table, turning to face the screen, presenting student, or one another as appropriate.

There are naturally some flaws. You can fit more people into the room if you arrange the seats in rows. You will also likely struggle to get everyone at the table itself in the alternative proposed above. But you might well be able to get everyone within at least one row of it, making it easier to reach models and books.

The increasing availability of digital data projectors in the academic environment has made great things possible in architectural education. Whereas my early experiences of them were dominated by illegible drawings projected by students who thought it was a straight substitution for plotting A1 sheets, there is an increasing sophistication of the visual language used by the students to present their work digitally. While high resolution plots and prints of drawings are still irreplaceable for the detailed examination of projects (especially when they’re being assessed) an event like the Big Crit benefits hugely from being able to present a large quantity of student work with relatively little disruption between presentations. Furthermore, the critics and audience are no longer beholden to the physical spaces of the school, being able to see all projects under consideration in one space (rather than moving peripetically around the studios and crit rooms, audience in tow, perched on whatever furniture is near-by).

Regardless of my beef about how schools of architecture arrange and populate their crits, there is no doubt in my mind that the Scott Sutherland School’s Big Crit is one of the most engaging and valuable events of the summer exhibition season. I’ll be making a date for next year’s event, and invite you to join me for a day out at the country’s northernmost school. It might provide the perfect model for a public day of reviews at your school of architecture.

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Gaunt and opinionated

There’s a little something (subscription req’d)  from me in today’s Building Design on the question of whether architecture should be taught in secondary schools. This follows the appointment of Classic FM’s M.D. by the coalition government to lead a review of cultural education in secondary education. I tried to trace where the proposal for teaching architecture in schools actually came from, because neither Ed Vaizey nor Michael Gove appear to have explicitly floated the idea in launching a review into cultural education in secondary schools, but it was an interesting opportunity to revisit the idea.

On a complete tangent, this is actually my first contribution to the opinion pages of BD, so I my words now necessitate a headshot. Ever the dutiful son, I emailed the link to my family, but since they’re not subscribers the only response of note that came back was that I’m looking a bit gaunt.

Will remember to submit under pseudo-anonymity in future…

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Via the BBC. For those beyond our shores, British undergraduate degree classifications are generally (in ascending order): Fail, Ordinary Degree (a three year degree in Scotland, where Honours degrees require an additional year), Third Class Honours (a “third”), Second Class Honours Lower Division (a “two-two”), Second Class Honours Upper Division (a “two-one”) and First Class Honours (a “first”).

Student challenges 2:2 degree awarded from Queen’s
20 September 2010 Last updated at 17:13

A Belfast graduate has taken his university to court after they awarded him a 2:2 degree.

Andrew Croskery, from County Down, applied for a judicial review of the grade he received from Queen’s University in Belfast.

Mr Croskery claimed if he had received better supervision he would have obtained a 2:1, the High Court was told on Monday.

A lawyer for QUB said the court was not the place to resolve the matter.

Mr Croskery graduated in June with a degree in electrical engineering.

His barrister claimed he had been denied a right to appeal against his classification because he had already graduated from Queen’s in the summer.

Tony McGleenan argued that the university’s stance was not compliant with his client’s human rights.

“It is obviously an important case for the applicant. He avers his employment prospects have been jeopardised… in this competitive job market,” he said.

“It’s also clearly an important case for the university.”

The court heard how a Board of Visitors at Queen’s, whose members include two judges, considers student appeals and complaints.

Nicholas Hanna QC, for Queen’s, argued that the judicial review application should be dismissed as the court was not the proper forum for the challenge.

“The jurisdictional issue is so clear that it is unarguable and therefore, I submit, leave should be refused,” he said.

The judge, Mr Justice Treacy, adjourned the case and will determine if the legal challenge can go ahead next month.

Good to know I might have a back-up option if things go badly in the next 18 months. Just kidding, I promise.

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This is the Street Society

Above: fifth and first year students discussing their project in an ‘interface zone’ along Northumberland Street, in west Belfast.

This week we’re making an experiment at QUB, with first and fifth year students of architecture coming together for a full week clear of other class commitments. They’re working in small groups with real clients in modest five day live projects. You can find out more about what they’re up to on their website at streetsociety.ning.com

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Be Bold and Proceed: live projects at the Birmingham School of Architecture

As promised, here is the text of the a paper I delivered at the 2009 AHRA Postgraduate Research Symposium in Cardiff just before Christmas. This is the first academic paper I have delivered in the course of my PhD studies, and I took the opportunity to tie-up some research I’ve made into the live projects that existed at the Birmingham School of Architecture in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. It’s not a ground-breaking work, but at an introduction to what I believe to be an as-yet unconsidered series of pedagogic experiments in British architectural education.

I’m especially grateful to RM and AM for their input and advice, and to the attentive and responsive Cardiff audience who eased me into the art of reading aloud my work out aloud.

I hope that a fellow presenter here today won’t object to me paraphrasing something he wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1958 Oxford Conference on Architectural Education, that ‘it’s as easy to complain about the state of architectural education today as it is difficult to comprehend quite how awful it was fifty years ago.’1 In 1958 and 1961, two journals – Architecture and Building and Architect and Building News – commissioned the same correspondent, John Smith, to report on the state of the schools of architecture in Britain. In 1958 he found schools ranging “from pucka university departments to correspondence colleges of dubious merit.”2 But in some, Smith found students designing and building real buildings, notably at the Birmingham School of Architecture, where a programme of live projects had seen dozens of buildings constructed to students’ designs. Reporting from a city famed for its manufacturing, Smith found a school with an ethos “to do a little, thoroughly, rather than a lot, superficially.”3 In their second year, Birmingham students constructed bizarre ‘conglomerates’ in the workshops of a nearby technical college: temporary, small-scale indoor structures that were designed to combine as many different domestic details as possible rather that satisfy a client or brief.4 The conglomerates were dismantled after assessment so that their materials could be recycled the following year, but these were a prelude to the live projects: bungalows, terraced houses, small blocks of flats and community halls designed or built by students in the upper years.

We have, in architectural education today, a notion of what a ‘live project’ is and what it may achieve. The term is a primarily British one, but the notion of removing students from the simulated design environment of the studio and transplanting them to the ‘real’ world is well established elsewhere. Dr. Rachel Sara, who has written extensively on contemporary British live projects and whose doctoral thesis examined their pedagogic value from a critically reflective feminist standpoint, has defined a live project as ‘a type of design project that is distinct from a typical studio project in its engagement of real clients or users, in real-time settings. Students are taken out of the studio setting, and repositioned in the ‘real-world’ … the process is more dialogic and inclusive than traditional studio projects, allowing and embracing alternative voices in the studio environment.’5 From an American perspective, William Carpenter, who has written about design/build studios in American schools of architecture, defines a live project as a ‘university course that incorporates actual practice-based methods into an educational environment for clear learning outcomes.’ The engagement of American schools of architecture in design/build studios or Community Design Centres provides a seductive stepping stone between, on the one hand, pedagogically motivated live projects and, on the other the philanthropic community-based design/build projects. The design/build studios of certain American schools of architecture were inspirational models of user-centric collaborative learning to my recent generation of live project students at Sheffield, a school with ten years of recent experience in their delivery. However the contextual specificity of an architectural education that engages students in the real world cannot be replicated somewhere else. Auburn University’s Rural Studio in Alabama depends not just on a density of potential clients living with substandard houses and facilities, but also a county in which students can work without building legislation. With more than a decade of continuous activity from the early fifties to early sixties, I propose that the Birmingham live projects are an under-explored series of experiments in mid-twentieth century architectural education.

As John Musgrove6 and others have noted, most writings on architectural education regard the 1958 Oxford Conference as a turning point in British architectural education. In their comprehensive history of architectural education in Britain, Messrs. Crinson and Lubbock go so far as to describe the conference in militaristic terms, suggesting a conspiratorial attack by the modernisers of architectural education. In the generational overlap between the decline of articled pupillage and the rise of the modern era of an academic education in architecture, it is tempting to interpret construction projects such as those at Birmingham as an artisanal reaction against the recommendations of the 1958 Oxford Conference, which favoured a higher entry qualifications and the concentration of schools in university-level institutions with healthy support for postgraduate research.  But we should remember that the Birmingham live projects were in action seven years before the conference, and that as my research that has found, the head of the school was eager for students both to design real buildings and be in a university.

In the words of John Smith, Douglas Jones, head of the Birmingham School of Architecture from 1947 and 1962, was “to Birmingham as [Charles] Reilly was to Liverpool”. Jones became head of the architecture school in Manchester in 1940, before being appointed to the same position at Birmingham, where he replaced the École des Beaux Arts-trained George Drysdale. We know that he taught at the Architectural Association in the late thirties, and there is tantilising evidence that he ran a live project there in which students designed and built a small cottage, although this has been omitted from any of the histories of the AA l that I have found.

Minutes from the Birmingham school of architecture sub-committee in 1949 indicate that, less than two years after his appointment, Jones was already pressing for the School of Architecture to be affiliated with Birmingham University. Mention is made of the confusion he caused by bypassing his superior, the Principal of the College of Art, in communicating directly with the Ministry of Education on certain matters. These minutes suggest Jones was politely put in his place, but by the following year, informal discussions had begun with the university, and a report was prepared by the school’s chief education officer. It was noted during this process that universities such as Liverpool were already likely to be attracting better students with the opportunity to acquire an honours degree, even though the majority of RIBA recognised schools of architecture were in technical colleges or schools of art. Jones’ ambition in seeking to align the Birmingham school with a university – almost ten years before the Oxford Conference set an academic agenda for schools of architecture – was unprecedented, and while the Birmingham school was to remain aligned with the school of art, suggested a radical aspiration for a teaching of architecture that was both practical and academic.

On Thursday 30 October 1952, representatives of the RIBA Board of Education visited the Birmingham School of Architecture to inspect the facilities, see a sample of the students’ work and to decide whether the school could continue to offer exemption from RIBA examination to graduating students. This process, incidentally, continues to this day, and I participate in it as a student panel member. It is now highly structured, with visits every four years taking two whole days to follow an agreed programme and a rigorous code of conduct. It was not always so, however. Elizabeth Layton, the RIBA’s Education under-secretary from 1962 until 1971, recalled that, prior to her appointment to enact the recommendations of the Oxford Conference, “the visiting board … used to spend one day at a school, no more. It arrived at ten o’clock and had a cup of coffee, and left after it had had a long lunch, at about five” and did not meet any students formally.7 My examination of the school’s documents (which are now held in the archives of the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design) suggests that the 1952 validation board was far from neutral in its attitude to Douglas Jones’ experiments. The eleven pages of observations Douglas Jones made to the report (which is itself only ten pages long) note that “five members of the Visiting Board are those officers of the Board of Architectural Education who wrote to me twelve months ago telling me that practical building projects (i.e. “Live Projects”) should not be carried out in the School.”  From personal communication with Douglas Jones before his death in 2003, Crinson and Lubbock have confirmed that Jones had very great support amongst the RIBA Board of Architectural Education for his experiments in education, although it seems that this support was not represented in the panel that visited Birmingham. The board was to recommend continued recognition for the school, making criticisms that are to be expected of a non-university school at the time. Tellingly, the highly unusual live projects were addressed in two distinct appendices: one describing the four projects completed or in progress at the time of the visit, and one offering the board’s critique. That the live projects were not considered as part of the overall report suggests that they were uneasily integrated with the school’s curriculum, and the board “felt that the general standard of work in the studios fell below what might reasonably be expected of a school with RIBA Final recognition and they think that this might be due in part to over-emphasis on the ‘Live Projects’.” Whereas modern-day live projects have are advocated as a means of introducing user-sensitive consultation and collaboration skills, the board reported “there is too much group work throughout the school. Whilst justification can be found for certain projects being handled in this way, most of the student’s efforts should be directed in solving his own problems.”

The first Birmingham live project was a row of terraced houses in Rednal, near Birmingham. The City Engineer authorised the project to be given to the school, and the city’s Housing Architect provided verbal instructions. Every third year student prepared their own designs, before a jury selected two finalists for further work, although sadly one that is described “of framed construction on stilts, was later abandoned due to high cost.”8 The winning design, by David Radford, was worked up by a group of four students, including the young Geoffrey Darke, later of Darbourne & Darke, before being handed over to Birmingham Corporation for construction. The Visiting Board notes that the contractor treated the scheme as a ‘hospital job’, taking almost two years to finish it. The houses were, however, complete by the time the students entered fifth year, and they still stand to this day. In the following academic year, 1951/2, four groups of third and fourth year students produced sketch designs for a development of flats and bungalows in Fletchamsted. In the absence of a year master, the groups were led by fourth year students with experience of earlier live projects, including Radford. The visiting board considered this “undesirable” for the senior students because of the interruption to their own studies and the “unjustifiably high opinion of their attainments” that it might foster. The Birmingham and Five Counties Architectural Association was also to object to larger projects, ostensibly because they placed a prejudicial burden on the school’s staff but also because they represented substantial competition. An agreement was later reached with the BFCAA to only accept work up to the value of £12,000. Construction firms tendered for the work as they would any other job, and once on site the live projects were overseen by students much in the same role as an architect. This was to lead to noticeable discrepancies of detail design, which the visiting board attributed to the “overstaffing” of an entire year group designing a small project. In their critique:

Only a very small number of students can prepare the drawings for the actual contract purposes and professional responsibilities make it inevitable that the best students only are selected … The students who have to make drawings for their own alternative scheme, which are not to be built, benefit no more than from a normal school programme. They may, however, feel a sense of frustration, as compared with the selected group, and this may result in a lower standard of work on their part.

That is not to say, however, that the board was unsympathetic with the pedagogical intent of the live projects to simulate normal architectural practice in the school.

The Visiting Board think that where ‘Live Projects’ are included in the course they must be genuine representations of everyday practice and be ancillary and not alternative to normal studio design work. Smaller schemes might be chosen to give experience in planning and construction, but they cannot provide a substitute for more broadly based tuition.9

Douglas Jones’ observations to the report confirm a greater aspiration that merely the simulation of practice, explaining that:

There is only one thing that is certain about Architectural Education and that is its complete uncertainty … In this age of architectural chaos, we at Birmingham, have taken (or have tried to take) several educational steps which I hope are forward steps; but all the thought and the effort that we have given to Architectural Education (and at Birmingham during the past few years there has been greater impetus than in any of the other Schools) has been been passed over. This perhaps due to the fact that two views are held on the subject of Architectural Education.

The first of these views is that of the architect who maintains that students on qualifying should make useful assistants and justify their existence by paying their way as soon as they qualify.

If the School concentrated entirely on turning out good assistants for Private Offices they could probably succeed but – and this is the other view – it is the duty of the Schools not only to try to train useful assistants but also to train people who will one day make good architects with vision and initiative.

Nobody has yet discovered whether these two things are entirely compatible.10

Here, in 1953, Douglas Jones has identified the problem that architectural educators continue to grapple with more than fifty years later; namely how architecture may be taught in a university-level context. On the one hand, Jones’ aspiration to align the school with the university confirmed the he saw architectural education as a highly intellectual creative activity, while on the other his development of construction projects emphasised its practical and problem-solving nature. While the learning-through-making approach of the Bauhaus has had an immeasurable influence on schools of architecture around the world, I would suggest that Birmingham developed a subtly different model of ‘live’ architectural education that situated live architectural problem-solving into an academic context.

Subsequent live projects, including a village hall, an ex-servicemen’s club and a number of small housing developments, were to acknowledge the criticisms of the 1953 report and moderate the scale of work undertaken. But to look back at the Birmingham live projects in search of precedents for current collaborative or live projects, it is tempting to simplify a complex series of experiments in architectural education as an pioneering example of a design/build education in architecture. Sara, for instance, summarises that “students were involved in hands-on work, in communicating with clients and each other, in outside locations.”11 While it is true that Birmingham students were introduced to basic building skills through the second year conglomerates, and that third year students produced all the necessary materials for small projects to be built, I would express great caution in assuming that the Birmingham live projects were coherent design/build teaching projects in the sense that we understand them today, and that to do so downplays their importance in a broader history of architectural education. To suggest that they did all of the above is to compress a decade of teaching practice into the life-span of one student, and as was noted by the RIBA visiting board, it was a quite un-collaborative process that was liable to exclude or under-represent weaker students. And while the live projects introduced students to real clients, almost all were local authorities or public bodies. Moreover, students worked just as before – individually and in competition with one another to have their design chosen by a jury of critics for detailed development. It was not until 1959 that we can be sure that students actually worked on-site, and when they did, in a row of terraced houses in Water Orton in a distinctly titled ‘live building project’, they were actually building a design provided by a commercial house-builder, in an early example of architecture students providing cheap if inexperienced labour (although I should emphasise, the houses still appear to be standing).

It is, of course, extremely difficult to critique the teaching practices of a school fifty years later, and many of these observations I’ve made to must be considered in the light of contemporary architectural practice. By 1962, when Douglas Jones left Birmingham for the Bristol school and just as the RIBA Board of Education was beginning to act on the recommendations of the Oxford Conference, it seems that the live project experiment at Birmingham was coming to an end. The second year live project was a refurbishment rather than new-build, and the two fifth year live projects are not believed to have been realised. Denys Hinton, who had many years of live project teaching experience at Birmingham and who was to succeed Douglas Jones as head of the school of architecture, explained:

Theory is unintelligible. We sought for a fuzzing of the boundaries between training and practice. I want to emphasize that we did not want to to be seen as practice; we wanted to integrate this with the learning. For us the maturity of the student was very important. This was not just an academic project and this was not just working on a site …12

In an article in the AJ that year, Anthony Goss, a senior lecturer in the school, introduced an evolution of the desire to bring a sense of realism in the studio, namely a ‘Realistic Project’ for fourth and fifth year students. While affirming that they “in no way take the place of our live projects”13, Goss acknowledged the difficulty with which a continuing search for “realism” in architectural education could be balanced with a sufficient “depth” of study for upper level    students. The realistic projects grouped students with real clients and host architects to provide expertise and criticism, but there was to be no built outcome. The students prepared agreed briefs in their groups before ploughing their own furrows towards separately submitted projects, each designed up to working and detail drawings, with a fully detailed cost plan. Presentation drawings were discouraged. Goss concluded that “the principles underlying the schemes – of realism, deeper study of smaller buildings and a closer link with good offices – deserve wider application in senior years of architectural education.” But realism was not to include construction.

The Birmingham live projects of the nineteen fifties and sixties have emerged in this, my first year of PhD studies into live projects in architectural education, as the first notable example of a British academic architectural education that sought to engage students with a sense of the realism that was seen to have been lost in the transition away from articled pupillage to a Beaux Arts derived education. Through primary documentary evidence, we know that Douglas Jones wanted the Birmingham School of Architecture to be both located in a university and to engage with an unavoidable reality that would nurture sustainable problem-solving skills and creative vision. It is my thesis that these, and many other subsequent live projects are an opportunity to understand a perceived inadequacy or flaw in the teaching of architecture. My research continues, and I am hopeful of locating more primary evidence relating to Douglas Jones and his colleagues at Birmingham in the nineteen-fifties in the coming months.

1. Parnell, S., 2008. Coverage of the 1958 Oxford Conference was harsh and influential. Architects Journal, (17 July), 47.
2. Smith, J. 1958. The Schools. Architecture and Building, (February), 42-69.
3. Smith, J., 1961. Schools of Architecture – 2 – Birmingham. Architect & Building News, (22 February), 257-263.
4. Crinson, M. and Lubbock, J., 1994. Architecture – art or profession. Manchester: Manchester University Press
5. Sara, R., 2006. CEBE Briefng Guide Series, No.8: Live Project Good Practice: A Guide for the Implementation of Live Projects. Plymouth: University of Plymouth.
6. Musgrove, J., 1983. Architectural education : the growth of a discipline. Architectural Education, (1), 105-112.
7. TROMBLEY, S., 1983. The Oxford Conference and after : an interview with Elizabeth Layton. Architectural Education, (1), 89-97.
8. RIBA, 1952. Report of the RIBA Visiting Board upon the School of Architecture, the College of Arts and Crafts, Birmningham. London: RIBA.
9. RIBA, 1952. Ibid.
10. RIBA, 1952. Ibid.
11. Sara, 2004, 132-133
12. Carpenter, W., 2004. Design and construction in architectural education : 1963 – 2003. PhD edn. Birmingham: University of Central England in Birmingham.
13. Goss, A., 1962. Realistic Projects at Birmingham. Architects Journal, (4 April), 727-731

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American apparel: AIAS Forum t-shirts

Perhaps a key cultural indicator? At the AIAS Forum (described below) one afternoon, architecture students from around the country presented the t-shirts they had designed and printed to raise money for their AIAS chapters. And while there were some exceptions, I couldn’t help noticing a pattern emerging.

In their 1996 report to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Ernest Boyer and Lee Mitgang drew on an extensive survey of students, faculty and practising architects to argue that schools of architecture should be, amongst other things:

…learning communities – places where students are supported, not put on trial, where communication is clear and mutually respectful, where all groups are actively sought out, and where the community regularly celebrates itself.

I am of a generation that questions the Beaux Arts method of inculcating students with a certain patten of behaviour – a kind of academic hazing, if you will. Architecture has been a problematic discipline to open up to its true diverse and inclusive potential, especially as for so long its design studio overwhelmed curricula with its sprawling time  requirements and overwhelmed students with its competitive structures of work and judgement. But in that same report, Boyer and Mitgang noticed that despite a density of reasoned critique, many architecture students were inclined to defend such aggressive and confrontational educational rituals as the solo student presenting to a design jury of invited critics.

A number of architecture students and graduates we met agreed that architecture should be a hardening experience. As one student at a West Coast campus told us: “A value of it being so rigorous and taking so much commitment is that you leave with a commitment to the field.”

It’s hard to tell from the cross section of architecture students at the AIAS Forum, but I sensed a continued affection for the macho culture of architectural education. Perhaps it was most evident in the t-shirts on sale. Is it representative of every student and every school? I doubt it, but it was something that seemed somewhat out of step with the progressive and inclusive culture of architectural education advanced by the AIAS in its broader activities and publications.

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About the project

learning architecture is an academic blog of James Benedict Brown, previously a doctoral candidate in architectural pedagogy at the School of Planning, Architecture and Civil Engineering at Queen's University Belfast, Northern Ireland. James passed his viva in September 2012 and graduated the following December.

About the author

James Benedict Brown has worked and studied in England, Northern Ireland, France and Canada. Following the completion of his PhD at QUB, he was appointed Lecturer in Architecture at Norwich University of the Arts. A short bio is here.

About the supervisors

The project is supervised by Prof. Ruth Morrow and Keith McAllister. Prior to his appointment at Qatar University in 2009, Prof. Ashraf Salama also supervised the project.


Click here for the bibliography to date.


Click here for a selection of peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed writing.


Click here for a glossary-in-progress of key terms used in the project.

Conference diary

Conferences and seminars of interest to the project.


All images are used for illustrative purposes only, and the copyright remains with the artist and/or creator. Please contact me if I have misappropriated an image or incorrectly credited it.


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